Cleveland Browns position not needed in draft No. 4: Wide Receiver
This may be a bit controversial, because fans love wide receivers, and especially now that the Browns are welcoming Deshaun Watson to Cleveland, shouldn’t they get him some new weapons?
Maybe, but despite losing Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr, and Rashard Higgins, there’s no crisis at wide receiver. The Browns are going to like Amari Cooper so much that they won’t miss any of the three guys they lost. In fact, truth be told, due to bad chemistry, injuries, bad play-calling problems at the quarterback position, or whatever, the net contribution from those three receivers was negative in 2021.
Landry averaged only 6.6 yards per target (118th best in the NFL), OBJ was 6.5 (121st best) yards/target and Higgins was 5.9 yards per target (133rd best). We can argue about whose fault it was, but those were terrible numbers.
Amari Cooper was 48th with 8.3 yards/target, and that’s going to improve the Browns immensely. By the way, at 10.3 yards per target, Donovan Peoples-Jones was seventh.
Although the disconnect between Odell Beckham, Jr. and Baker Mayfield grabbed headlines, things were equally frosty at times between Baker and Peoples-Jones. There was an “in-crowd” and “out-crowd” last season, and if players were not on the “in-crowd” list, Baker Mayfield would not throw them the ball. Baker’s relationship with OBJ directly affected his relationship with Peoples-Jones. That has to be factored into the evaluation.
Mayfield and OBJ were kind of similar to Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. On again, off again.
Though it ended acrimoniously, it was not all hate. In the early going, Baker and OBJ were madly in love and as for Peoples-Jones — well, he was kind of like Marc Anthony, totally ignored. The numbers for the first four games, courtesy of Pro Football Reference are shocking, as shown below.
Peoples-Jones led the wide receivers in snaps by a wide margin, but Mayfield only targeted him four times, completing every pass thrown to him, by the way, so don’t say it was because of lack of ability or results. Beckham was targeted 16 times in two games (he missed two due to injury) and caught less than half the passes that were thrown his way.
OBJ received 8.0 targets per game, versus one target per game for Peoples-Jones, or one target every 7.1 snaps for OBJ versus 48.0 snaps per target for Peoples-Jones. Unbelievable but true.
Player G Snaps Targets Targets/gm S/T Catches Catch pct
Odell Beckham, Jr. 2 114 16 8.0 7.1 7 43.8%
Jarvis Landry 1 53 6 6.0 8.8 6 100.0%
Rashard Higgins 4 128 11 2.8 11.6 8 72.7%
Anthony Schwartz 4 104 8 2.0 13.0 3 37.5%
Donovan Peoples-Jones 4 192 4 1.0 48.0 4 100.0%
Later, things would change as Baker started to see DPJ and Odell ran away and filed for divorce. But look at Odell’s numbers, then look at DPJ’s, then look at Odell’s numbers, and look at DPJ’s again.
You can’t help but conclude that DPJ was being shunned. Even Schwartz, the flashy new young face, was targeted about four times as frequently as DPJ. He couldn’t catch footballs, however, and please don’t try to advance the theory that he could run better patterns than Peoples-Jones, because everyone will just laugh if you do.
Later in the season, defenses keyed on Peoples-Jones rather than Jarvis Landry. Nevertheless, Peoples-Jones wound up leading the team with 597 yards on only 34 catches. That’s 17.6 yards per reception or 10.3 yards every time he was targeted (seventh-best in the NFL, as mentioned previously).
By contrast, Jarvis Landry’s average was only 6.6 yards per target. Nobody could possibly think that Landry was a better receiver than DPJ last year. DPJ should be just fine, especially now that he is seeing the other team’s second-best cover corner rather than the top coverage man. Thank you in advance, Amari Cooper.
Incidentally, Peoples-Jones and Mayfield connected on a 57-yard bomb versus Arizona which traveled 66.4 yards through the air, the longest complete pass ever recorded by NextGen Stats.
If you don’t like that one, there are several others from Peoples-Jones’ brief career. After watching him catching enough bombs from Mayfield, it’s hard to question the ability of Peoples-Jones to catch the deep ball, or Mayfield’s ability to deliver it.
However, there are major questions about where Mayfield’s head was at, like why was it so important to throw five-yard passes to Austin Hooper, and Jarvis Landry when Donovan Peoples-Jones was open downfield? That question will have to be answered by someone with a higher football IQ than your humble correspondent.
So, to make a long story longer, those fans who are pouting that DPJ is not good enough to be a starter are wrong. The problem in Cleveland last season is that the quarterback had his own agenda about who was going to receive passes nor should fans be shedding tears about missing Landry, OBJ, and Higgins based on their horrible production last season.
Nobody is saying that those receivers are not talented (congratulations once again to OBJ for his Super Bowl ring and best wishes for a full recovery from that ACL). They all have a great chance to mount comebacks. But Peoples-Jones was great once Baker made up his mind to throw him the dang ball. By pairing him with Amari Cooper, DPJ is going to see the second-best cornerback and that is going to translate to more receptions and more yardage. Throwing the ball to him will also help.
Another article could be written discussing why Austin Hooper was so greatly preferred over David Njoku as the top tight end target last season. David Njoku was 27th in the NFL with 9.0 yards/target, even higher than Cooper, and he was not even a wide receiver. His numbers were similar to Rob Gronkowski’s (also 9.0 yards/target) but for whatever reason Austin Hooper at 5.7 yards/target (140th in the NFL) was by far Mayfield’s favorite tight end target. But we will save that for another time.
Now, let’s turn the discussion to who the Browns have backing up at split end. The Browns could always draft someone if they feel there is an outstanding prospect who has slid too far. But they have already signed free agent Jakeem Grant, who also is a premier return man. The Browns are unlikely to cut him.
They also have Anthony Schwartz, last year’s number three, who was barely 21 last season. Schwartz was unimpressive last season at age 21. Is he going to step it up this season, or are we going to assess him to be a draft bust at age 22?
Coming out of the draft, the buzz on Schwartz was that he was very raw, did not run precise patterns, and was a year or two away. So, after watching him for a season, the Dawg Pound was disappointed to find out that he was very raw, did not run precise patterns, and was a year or two away, and he was still only 21.
Well, what were we expecting? Some patience is required here for the kid. There are exceptions (Ja’Marr Chase comes to mind as an outstanding 21-year-old receiver), but it often takes until year three for wide receivers to develop in the NFL.
Third-year receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley is 25 years old and has not played much, but grades higher than Schwartz, according to Pro Football Focus. So does Grant, for that matter. What the heck, that’s five split ends who should make the team. They will also audition a few undrafted free agents who might be able to take one of those jobs away.
There is room for a late-round draftee to make the team, plus the Browns will audition undrafted free agents and recycled veterans. However, there is no crisis that would cause the team to try to prioritize wide receiver on day two of the draft. Given the needs on defense, they are more likely to go for a wide receiver on day three or not at all unless they are totally enthralled with a special prospect.